This post was created by intern Alison Dundy.
From Washington Heights to France, MS 671, World War I Collection
The illustrated letters of Salvator Cillis are a highlight of the New-York Historical Society’s World War I Collection (MS 671). Cillis was an artist with an edgy sense of humor. His humorous letters and drawings trace the arc of this soldier’s war experience, from enthusiastic patriotism at the start of service, to good-natured endurance of the drudgery of training, to battle-weary longing for a safe return home to New York City.
Cillis was born in Italy in 1892 and immigrated to New York with his family in 1901. He found work as a sign painter at the Levy Co. on Wooster Street in lower Manhattan. The World War I collection includes the letters he wrote to his former employer and co-workers from basic training at Camp Upton in Long Island and from France.
On October 1, 1917, Cillis described how the army took men of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and national origins, and molded them into soldiers–or, as he called them, “The Bonehead Squad at Attention.” Cillis wrote, “They’re Greeks and freaks, Irish and Scotch, Italians and Jews, the fellow next to me is an Armenian. They’re of all race, color, religion and opinion. They all don’t know what they’re going to fight for, and many don’t care either.”
“The Bonehead Squad at Attention,” MS 671 World War I Collection
By late November, 1917, the temperature was dropping and so was morale. Cillis wrote on November 25: “I’ve heard some say that they would rather be a live coward than a dead hero, another said that he would like to exchange all the honor that he’s going to get out of this war if he could get his job back again.”
By December, Cillis had seen battle…and he hadn’t even left Long Island yet. He illustrated holiday cards with watercolors of a snowball fight.
First Battle: A Snowball Fight at Camp Upton, Long Island, MS 671, World War I Collection
As basic training wears on, Salvator Cillis paints pictures in his head with words, turning something as dull as roll call into a play on words. On February 7, 1917 he writes: “When my corporal calls the roll it sounds as if he were managing a menagerie. Three men answer to the name of Tiger, Lyons, and Wolf. We also had a fellow named Fox, but he’s not with us anymore.” A little more than a week later, the herd had thinned out. Cillis writes on February 16, 1918: “Our famous menagerie is going to be broken up again, because Tiger, despite his fierce name, is as tame as a lamb and lively as a turtle. He is going to be sent home as he is physically unfit.”
“Giving It To Them,” MS 671, World War I Collection
In the fall of 1918, Cillis was in the thick of real battles with the 306th Field Artillery in France. In the early days of fighting, Cillis described his unit’s enthusiasm for the war: “To all of us [it] is a pleasure to hear the shell leave the gun, each time someone says the wish that one will strike the Kaiser or Hindenburg and other leaders of the enemy.”
“Last Night I Dreamt About Her,” MS 671, World War I Collection
Three months of trench warfare sapped the spirit of Salvator Cillis. His letters and artwork reveal a man of humor and compassion, who did not dwell on or record the terror of World War I in words or pictures. But in a poignant letter written from Dancevoir, France on December 14, 1918, Cillis observes: “Also, as we have seen war and its thrills, so now nothing can stir us except when we see the old girl with her torch in New York harbor.”
Salvator Cillis was discharged in 1919. His passport application from 1923 indicates that he intended to go to France and Italy to “study art.” He died in 1966 and is buried in the Long Island National Cemetery. The letters were given to the New-York Historical Society in 1946.